The suspension of Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Washington Israeli Embassy, has stunned Foreign Ministry officials.

Jerusalem officials who spoke with Arbell said he was shocked by the harsh dismissal and the widely distributed memorandum sent out by the ministry director general on Tuesday. "He feels like a man publicly stabbed in the city square," one official said.

Arbell was relieved of his duties after admitting he had leaked sensitive information to an Israeli journalist more than two years ago. The article that was published dealt with a dialogue between Israeli and U.S. officials about Iran's nuclear program.

The Americans complained to Israeli officials about the article, prompting then National Security Adviser Uzi Arad to push for a Shin Bet security service investigation into the affair. Arad himself was dismissed from his post in the Prime Minister's Bureau after being suspected of another leak.

The first victim in the affair was Alon Bar, head of the Foreign Ministry's strategic affairs department, who was dismissed after being accused of leaking to the press. However, he was later exonerated by the Shin Bet; his security clearance was restored and he was appointed ambassador to Spain.

It is not clear why Arbell was suspended so long after the affair. Senior ministry officials said yesterday the decision was made by ministry director general Rafael Barak. Others said the Shin Bet had demanded taking harsh measures against him.

"Barak's conduct has raised a lot of anger," a senior ministry official said. "Two and a half years the apparent 'criminal' served as deputy ambassador in Washington, a very senior post, and suddenly they remembered to relieve him of his duties. This isn't an espionage case, not even similar to Wikileaks. At worst it's a slip of the tongue," he said.

A number of Israeli diplomats said Arbel's case was another example of the witch hunt being conducted in the ministry in the past two years against anyone suspected of having contacts with journalists.

Several ministry workers said they assume their office telephone lines and the cellphone they received from the ministry for work purposes were tapped.

"Since (Avigdor ) Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister there's a real sense of fear," a senior official said. "At every meeting we hear threats of Shin Bet investigations, lie detector tests and looking at workers' conversations to see who is in touch with journalists. It's Lieberman's policy, but former director general Yossi Gal and the current one, Barak, totally cooperate with it."

The fear of being accused of leaking to the press has paralyzed a considerable part of the ministry's work, especially vis-a-vis the international and Israeli media. The media and public diplomacy department has been repeatedly reduced and the ministry's spokespeople are excluded from activities pertaining to policy and debates.

The ministry has also restricted journalists' entry to the ministry and background talks with journalists have become rare. In some cases, even when a journalist's request for a background conversation is approved, no diplomat is willing to brief him.